By Martha Simmons
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
At 8 a.m. four mornings a week, some 20 men wearing prison garb arrive at a dormitory classroom to spend the next four hours with God.
When they leave the classroom, there will be lots of homework. The 14-month Pathway to Freedom discipleship program is no crip course.
That’s as it should be, notes program founder Kenneth Brothers, because these inmates will face many challenges once they leave the prison bars behind and begin a lifelong journey toward transformation.
Previously serving as a volunteer in prison ministries, Brothers — a former Air Force colonel and B52 pilot — became all too aware of those challenges, seeing firsthand the revolving door of recidivism.
“When I retired from the Air Force in 1993, I began praying for God to reveal what He wanted me to do for the rest of my life,” he said. “After eight years, He finally answered with one word in June 2001: ‘Aftercare.’ My pursuit of fulfilling that calling led to the forming of New Beginnings Foundation Inc., a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit corporation, in June 2003.
“Negotiations with the Alabama Department of Corrections to implement Pathway to Freedom inside prison began in April 2004 and was finally approved in June 2007 from Commissioner Richard Allen,” Brothers said. “The first class began at Kilby prison in September 2007.”
Since then, of the 220 Pathway to Freedom graduates who have been released from prison, only seven — or about 3 percent — have been reincarcerated. That’s a stunning reversal from the overall recidivism rate for Alabama ex-felons, about 35 percent of whom will commit another crime, according to the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.
“When I meet Jesus, I’m going to give Him a photo album of all the graduates of our program,” Brothers said. “It’s an investment in heaven.”
Over the past decade, more than 610 inmates have taken part in the in-prison discipleship program in five men’s and women’s prison facilities. The men’s program meets four mornings a week but the women’s classes are held one night per week because of more limited access to facilities.
Both programs are dependent on volunteer facilitators.
Need for volunteers
There is a critical need for more churches and volunteers to sustain and grow the program, Brothers said, especially since some of the long-term facilitators are now facing age-related health problems. Volunteers commit to serving at least one day or night per week for three months. More importantly, they commit to establishing a rapport with the inmates.
“They need to know that you care,” Brothers said. “It’s basically a mentoring, coaching and discipling interaction.”
Pathway to Freedom is an important missions ministry for First Baptist Church, Montgomery, said Pastor Jay Wolf.
“First Baptist, Montgomery, has taken seriously and literally the call of Christ to minister to the incarcerated when He said, ‘I was in prison and you came to visit me,’” Wolf said, referencing Matthew 25:36. “Jesus instructed His followers to serve hurting and wounded people with the same type of compassionate care you would extend if Jesus stood before you.
“Pathway to Freedom constitutes our best efforts to help incarcerated friends come to know Christ, grow into His image and be prepared to be stable and productive Christ-followers when they leave prison,” he said. “Our volunteers act as mentors who pour a lot of God’s transforming truth into the thirsty spirits of the prisoners.
Noting the overcrowding issue in Alabama prisons — nearly 200 percent of their intended capacity — Wolf said, “We can either bemoan the problem or choose to be part of a solution. We can either curse the darkness or light a candle. When you participate in a fruitful ministry like Pathway to Freedom, you function as God’s liberating light in our dark world.”
Former inmate Larry Hutchins was living in a dark place after he returned, emotionally scarred and numb, from three tours in Vietnam.
“I look back on who I used to be and I’m not that person anymore,” he said. “I couldn’t show love. I couldn’t even cry because I had seen so much as a young man. I prayed to God to make me human again.”
Hutchins became a born-again Christian in 1992 but ended up incarcerated a few years later. He enrolled in Pathway to Freedom in 2011 and found the challenge and structure prepared him for his eventual journey as a free man.
“Pathway is almost like a college course. Four days a week, each on a different subject. You gotta do homework. You gotta show some responsibility. Not all people do well because they’re not disciplined enough and they’re not ready. That’s okay. The seed’s been planted.”
When he was released from prison, Hutchins continued his discipleship and now expresses joy and gratitude in his daily life.
“I get excited about this stuff,” he said.
He met his fiancée while handing out small crosses and praying with people he encountered in his daily travels. He also serves as the chaplain for his local American Legion post.
But enjoying the rewards of faith doesn’t mean it’s been a cakewalk.
“Being a Christian is not an easy job,” Hutchins said. “I believe in a structured prison program. As long as someone is involved consistently with the Word of God, it’ll change you. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, it says, ‘Behold, all things become new.’
“This doesn’t erase the past but it will change the man because he has a new outlook as long as he has Christ in his eyes before him.”
For ex-inmate Juanida Pitts, Pathway to Freedom motivated her to find ways to help other returned citizens to build a new life in the free world through a job training program she established with another former inmate, Melinda Ricketts.
Released in 2010, Pitts and Ricketts formed the nonprofit A Cut Above the Rest Training Facility. Now located in Birmingham, Mobile and Montgomery, the program offers construction and commercial lawn equipment job skills training and credentialing as well as life skills and employability training to ex-offenders upon their release back into society. Of 200 trained, only three have gone back to prison.
“I would never have thought about helping others and doing what I’m doing if not for that program. It meant everything to me,” Pitts said of Pathway to Freedom. “When I took that class, it’s like God came to life. I knew He really does love me and He is there for me.
“And when I got out, they didn’t leave me,” Pitts added. “Whenever I called Pathway, they were there. And they’re still there.”
Pathway to Freedom wasn’t an introduction to Christian discipleship for Ray Evridge, who considered himself a Christian and already knowledgeable about the Bible, having been to a Bible college before he became incarcerated. Rather the program offered him something else he desperately needed — forgiveness.
Importance of forgiveness
“One of the greatest things I got out of the program was that I learned how to forgive,” Evridge said. “Most guys in prison have a lot of problems with that, things in the past, maybe an abusive family situation.
“It helps you to be able to accept your responsibility for your life,” he said. “No matter what happens or how difficult it may be, you’ve got to let yourself heal. As long as you hold animosity and anger and blame others you’re never going to progress.
“You have to let God lead you. God is the only one who can instruct you,” Evridge said. “It’s all about faith. The Pathway program is really great for that. When you study the Word of God, it stays with you and helps you on your daily walk.
“Today, I’m walking with God. I’m staying out of prison. I’m thankful for what I know and what I do.”
For more information or to volunteer for the program, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 334-220-6519.